Last spring, Dennis Kochmann had an agonizing decision to make. The 24-year-old German mechanical engineering student was just weeks away from receiving his master’s from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and was ready to start on his Ph.D. But he was being tugged in two directions across the Atlantic. Both Wisconsin and his German alma mater, Ruhr University in Bochum, were eager for him to pursue his doctorate at their respective campuses. And each school offered advantages and disadvantages. Ultimately Kochmann chose to stay in Germany. But as an aspiring academic, Kochmann knows that wherever he earns his Ph.D., when it comes time to job hunt, he’ll focus on U.S. universities. Why? The chances of his finding a position at a German university are nearly nil. “The opportunities in Germany are very, very limited,” says Kochmann, who is a Fulbright Scholar. “Once you receive your Ph.D., you are almost kicked out of the university.”
As a young European graduate student who will likely carve out a research career in the United States, Kochmann is hardly alone. A November 2005 European Union report, “The Brain Drain—Emigration Flows for Qualified Scientists,” says an exodus of European scientists and researchers to the United States that began in the 1950s is worsening. Fully 71 percent of the 15,000 graduate students from EU countries who studied in the United States between 1991 and 2000, stayed in the United States. And the situation is not much different in non-EU countries. The report concluded that the brain drain to America could easily “gather pace.” Indeed, it said, “we have strong grounds for believing this process is already underway.”
The reasons why European academics migrate to the United States are many, but ultimately most come down to money—and not just the fact that salaries at U.S. schools tend to be higher; that was only one consideration. Instead, it’s the kinds of things that money can buy: better quality of work; easier access to funding with fewer bureaucratic hoops to jump through; and the availability of top technologies. Less available funding also means fewer jobs.
As Francesco Tenure, an Italian electrical and computer engineering doctoral student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, notes: “If there were more research money available (in Italy), there would be more jobs.” Moreover, successful academic careers often require a fair amount of mobility. And that’s something else that’s in short supply in Europe, where career paths routinely run into dead ends at a country’s borders.
European academics began noting the brain drain in the 1950s, and the term caught on after it was used in a 1963 study by Britain’s Royal Society. The authors of the EU report had expected to find that the situation had eased in recent years, not that it had gotten worse. And, indeed, some academics claim the problem is overstated. Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute says that in the United Kingdom, there is no brain drain. Yes, it says, many British researchers spend time in the United States, but many eventually return. But some experts claim that the United Kingdom is one of the few European countries where funding and opportunities for research are fairly plentiful. Meanwhile, Joost J.A. van Asten, managing director of the League of European Research Universities (LERU), says he’s seen nothing in the more than two years since the release of the EU report that would lead him to conclude that things were improving.
European nations have realized for some time that they need to plow more money into research. The problem is, they haven’t done much about it. In Lisbon in 2000, the EU countries agreed they needed to spend more on research to make Europe more competitive. In 2002, they set a target that each member nation should spend 3 percent of its gross domestic product on research by 2010. But only Finland and Sweden have met, and indeed passed, that goal. Germany is nudging it. Most of the others are nowhere near their target figures. The Netherlands, for instance, spends 1.8 percent of its GDP. Van Asten says at the current pace, it would take another 15 years for most countries to reach the 3 percent level.
The EU’s 6th Framework Program for Research and Technological Development began in 2002 and ends this year. It set aside nearly $22 billion over that period for mostly applied research. But though it was meant to improve coordination of research policy and funding, the system remains too fragmented and bureaucratic, many academics say. Proposals aren’t judged merely on their merits by fellow researchers. Instead, much of the money is doled out to countries on a proportional basis determined by how much each country contributed. And often other political priorities must first be met before a proposal’s scientific merits are considered. Scientists also say more money is needed for basic research.
The 2007 framework is meant to answer those concerns with a new European Research Council (ERC) that is based on the National Science Foundation (NSF). In addition to introducing a straightforward competition for funds, “we hope the ERC plays a role in coordinating Europe’s research effort,” van Asten says. Also, says Inge Knudsen, office director of the Coimbra Group, an association of 37 multidisciplinary European universities, “we hope it (the ERC) really boosts basic research.” But, already there is grumbling that the body is terribly under-funded at around $1.9 billion. Researchers say the figure should be closer to $5 billion. “It’s not enough,” Knudsen says. “But it is absolutely better than nothing, and it will get us started.”
Some European countries are reaching out to American universities to help increase research opportunities on their home turf. Last October, for instance, the Portuguese government inked a five-year, $82 million agreement with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to help foster research and teaching in engineering and management at seven top Portuguese universities. The MIT-Portugual pact focuses on four areas: transportation, energy, manufacturing and bioengineering.
When Claus Borgnakke, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, left his native Denmark in 1977 for Ann Arbor, it was mainly because there was a paucity of academic jobs in his discipline. “I realized that was never going to happen, so I came to the U.S. as a post-doc.” And, he adds, 30 years on, little has changed in Denmark. Most teachers at European universities are employed on a contract basis, Borgnakke says. And while there has been some increase in the number of contract jobs, they last only for as long as a project is funded.
Despite the easing of work and travel restrictions between EU states, pan-European mobility remains a problem for academics. Says van Asten: “There are obstacles that counteract efforts to make it easier for people to move around.” Tax plans, pension schemes and career-advancement processes vary from country to country. And that makes it harder for, say, a Portuguese researcher to apply for an opening at a university in Poland, or vice versa. Also, post-docs and other academic positions are not advertised in Europe like they are in the United States. There’s also a fair amount of protectionism. In the Netherlands, a quarter of the professors are foreign-born. But in countries like France and Italy, the number is negligible, mainly because jobs are rarely open to foreigners. “It would be impossible for me to get a job in France,” Borgnakke says. “There is some movement between England and Germany. So it can be done. But it is not easy.”
European researchers who flee to the United States also seek greater academic freedom. “Most European countries have old-fashioned, traditional academic systems,” Borgnakke explains. Usually a department has one full professor, who is a civil servant, and the rest are contract workers. Not only do such systems keep jobs scarce and reduce advancement possibilities, they limit research choices, since the full professor is involved in all decisions. Imme Ebert-Uphoff, who until recently was an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says “more flexibility is given to young scientists at (American) universities, since they can work fairly independently as assistant professors at a very young age.” Kochmann says in Germany everything is also more straight-laced and formal. To see an adviser at Ruhr, he would need to make an appointment with the professor’s secretary. He prefers the informal regime at Madison, where professors have open-door policies and he and his advisers are on a first-name basis.
Ebert-Uphoff says female engineers are also treated better in the United States than in Germany. American schools “do a much better job of integrating female engineering faculty seamlessly ...women in my field are taken seriously and their expertise is taken for granted.” As an engineering student at the University of Karlsruhe—one of three women in a class of 500 students—she was at times made to feel isolated and awkward. Professors, Ebert-Uphoff recalls, would take her aside and ask her why she was studying engineering since she “would not get a job.” There were times when she would walk into a class and be greeted by whistles.
European students say they also appreciate the welcoming atmosphere of U.S. schools. One of Kochmann’s Wisconsin advisers even offered to help Kochmann’s girlfriend back in Germany find employment in the Madison area. Lidia Esteve Agelet, 27, a Spanish student working on her master’s in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State University, says if she ever decides to pursue a doctorate, she’ll do it at an American school. It would, she says, be easier in the United States, where she could get an assistantship and work and earn money while she studied. “That’s not possible in Spain,” she says. For many European researchers, America, more than ever, remains a land of possibilities.
Thomas K. Grose is a freelance writer based in Great Britain.